(New York) - The arbitrary arrest by Egyptian security forces of 16 senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood on February 8, 2010, bodes ill for the election year ahead, Human Rights Watch said today. The arrests, including the group's deputy leader, are in addition to at least 41 others since the beginning of the year.
"The arrest and detention of senior members of Egypt's most powerful opposition party strikes a blow at hopes for genuinely free elections," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
On February 8 at dawn, security forces went to the homes of Mahmud Ezzat, the deputy leader, and Essam El Erian and Abdelrahman Al Barr, members of the group's executive body, and arrested them. The security forces arrested at least another 13 senior Muslim Brothers on the same day in Alexandria, Assiut, and other cities. In roundups on January 28, February 2, and February 7, security forces arrested at least 31 Brotherhood members.
On February 9, the state security prosecutor charged Ezzet and 15 of the other senior members with membership in an illegal organization with the goal of preventing state institutions from performing their duties and impairing social peace. The men also were charged with leading a faction within the Brotherhood which promotes violence against the government. They were ordered detained for 15 days.
At least 25 other Brotherhood members remain detained without charge, which is frequently the case with such arrests, but which constitutes illegal arbitrary detention under international law.
The authorities should charge or release all those arrested. Anyone charged should be presented with the evidence against them to allow them to challenge their detention, Human Rights Watch said.
Egypt is scheduled to hold elections for both chambers of parliament this year. The country's emergency law is also up for renewal in May.
Egypt has been governed under emergency law almost continuously since 1967 and without interruption since Hosni Mubarak became president in October 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. The law has been repeatedly renewed since then. The law gives the executive - in practice the Ministry of Interior - extensive powers to suspend basic rights such as prohibiting demonstrations, censoring newspapers, monitoring personal communications, and detaining people indefinitely without charge.
The government banned the Muslim Brotherhood in 1954. However, Muslim Brotherhood members running as independent candidates managed to win 20 percent of the parliamentary seats in the lower house in the 2005 elections.
Over past decade Human Rights Watch has documented previous instances in which security forces detained hundreds of Brotherhood members without charge in the periods before elections, such as the municipal elections in April 2008. In a statement published on the Brotherhood's website on February 8, the spokesperson for the group's parliamentary block said that these arrests were "part of the state's campaign against the group...to undermine participation by the group ahead of legislative elections later this year."
Human Rights Watch called on the government to lift the ban on the organization and to stop arresting people solely for their alleged membership since the Brotherhood has renounced violence for more than 30 years. The Egyptian government has never convincingly justified the continued ban, Human Rights Watch said.
Egyptian security forces routinely arrest members of the Muslim Brotherhood without judicial warrant or formal charge and arbitrarily detain them under emergency law orders. If they are eventually charged, Emergency Law no. 162 permits the executive to refer cases involving civilians to military or state security courts, whose composition is determined by the president and where the accused has no right of appeal, in violation of international fair trial standards.
In February 2006, days after a civilian court dismissed all criminal charges against Khairat Al Shatir, deputy supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, and 15 other senior members of the group, President Mubarak, acting in his capacity as commander-in-chief, transferred their cases and those of 24 other persons to a military tribunal. On April 15, 2008, the military tribunal sentenced Shatir and 24 other civilians to prison terms of up to 10 years.
Egypt is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which it ratified in 1982. The Covenant guarantees the right to liberty and security of person, stating: "No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention. No one shall be deprived of his liberty except on such grounds and in accordance with such procedure as are established by law," and "Anyone who is arrested shall be informed, at the time of arrest, of the reasons for his arrest and shall be promptly informed of any charges against him."
The UN Human Rights Council will review Egypt's human rights record, as part of its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of all member countries, February 17.
"Governments participating in the review of Egypt's human rights record should take the Mubarak government to task for its arbitrary detention of thousands of prisoners under the emergency law," Whitson said.